As you probably know by now, my final project was digitizing John Ogilby’s ‘Asia the First Part’ by using StoryMap, essentially allowing a contemporary audience to read the ‘geographic’ parts of his text together with the maps that he ‘grafted’ into the pages of the book. Here is the link to the first part of the StoryMap. Here is the link to the second part of the StoryMap, in case the link at the end of the first StoryMap does not work. I decided to write the more intense language philosophy parts on this post, separate from the caption-cum-footnotes on the StoryMap, and I will explain why I did so in the following sections of this post/essay. A lot of the theory is admittedly very speculative, and in fact I’m more articulating the contentiousness of my thought process than proving their accuracy. Let’s begin!
Features, Technicalities and Decisions about the StoryMap
The StoryMap(s) are made up of four components:
1. The background map(s) scanned in high-resolution from the Special Collections book itself.
2. The text, also scanned and then photoshopped so that the text ‘follows the map’, essentially making sure that each new important/new location mentioned is anchored on the map. This also includes illustrations in the book.
3. My own footnotes, captions, and slide titles.
4. External media, including Google Map comparisons and ‘visualizations’.
I will be referencing StoryMap slides with the following notation: ‘G1’ where G or P means the 1st StoryMap (General Description of Asia) or the 2nd StoryMap (Persia) respectively and the number following G or P is the ‘slide’ number. I will also reference the ‘title’ of the slide at times to make it even clearer.
These components, StoryMap itself, helps to ‘accentuate’ the text in several ways.
Firstly, while I can’t claim to know what the author John Ogilby’s intention was for his audience, the book contains ‘grafted’ (see previous posts for what I mean) maps and images – I think it reasonable that a reader would want to reference the map and look at the images in conjunction to what he’s describing. StoryMap allows me to directly place and move the reader’s attention on the admittedly cluttered map – saving him or her the time I took to digest the map. Take for example G10 (Peninsula): reading the chunk of text might make an unfamiliar reader confused because he/she not only has to digest all these places being rattled off but must also think of it from a big picture perspective to imagine the ‘peninsula’ Ogilby is trying to reference. I essentially save him the trouble of doing so on G12 by showing it to him visually.
Secondly, I give ‘updated’ knowledge, with pictures and footnotes, not only because it ‘updates’ Ogilby’s work (much like an encyclopaedia, I talk about this in a previous assignment on NewHive), but also so readers can decide for themselves the accuracy of Ogilby’s work. Also, it’s interesting, especially to a modern audience used to instantaneous information overload.
Third, having footnotes right next to the text allows the original writing to be preserved while allowing contemporary readers to absorb the text quicker – I usually try to explain text I initially had trouble deciphering. It also lets the readers decide for themselves if I’m being faithful or not.
Obviously, this form of ‘digitizing’ brings its own sets of problems and limitations – and I don’t just mean you can’t touch the book and see its nice gilded fore-edge.
Firstly, there are two ‘technically controllable’ problems that I just unfortunately thought it unfeasible to resolve given the amount of time I had. These should be considered non-decisions in that there is no special secret meaning about them – they’re just design flaws I can’t fix. One is that the map of Persia is extremely blur on the right side (not to mention my hands are in the picture), and parts of the scanned text are too. I realized too late (Josh went on a well-deserved vacation by then) to change the Zoomify/Gigapixel image which is hosted on his server. The second is that I can’t control how the StoryMap zooms in and out at all (though it’s probably programmable), so sometimes text is too small, or when I went the reader to see a bigger picture, I can’t program it to do so. On a similar note, I also don’t have the know-how to change font colours, backgrounds, etc.
On to limitations that in a sense, cannot be resolved with just technical know-how. The first of these is that I essentially dictate how the reader moves with the map – somewhat arbitrarily. Yes, it follows the text, but what if the reader wants to see a general location and not be ‘zipped’ here and there along with precise text?
The second is the uselessness of StoryMap when it comes to non-geographic text. For example, much of the book is also dedicated to describing a city itself or even the customs and culture of a peoples – there is no need for a map, or a map is not useful at all. In fact, I skip certain pages between slides because if not, the StoryMap would literally not move and it would just be text flowing. Yet, even this could be a viable option if the objective of my StoryMap was full-digitization; it is not – I believe that it fulfils a niche and any extra effort into transcribing the text entirely does not bring it much more convenience than just reading a digitized text.
I hope that was a good enough compromise between being brief and being thorough, it’s time to move on to frivolous (especially if you think like Wittgenstein) philosophical musings.
The Confusion of Phonetic Writing
What spurred me to think about this topic while I was making the StoryMap was frustration. A good number of hours (not kidding) were spent purely looking for places described by the text on the map itself. I have a strong suspicion that some places don’t even appear on the text – I might have made some inaccurate placements (see P33 for example). The root of this problem is inconsistent orthography. The root of inconsistent orthography is convention and process.
Ogilby, or other cartographers or ‘explorers’ he borrows names from initially seek the ‘name’ of a place via the locals – in their tongue (P1). Then, they try to ‘write’ out what it ‘sounds like’ using their own respective languages. Sometimes, they just borrow (without ‘translation’) from each other (G50) or so-called ‘ancient’ geographers like Strabo (G5, G48). And then, perhaps the greatest confusion of all – the maps are all in Latin. Maybe Ogilby didn’t want readers to use the maps with the text after all. A good example of these problems and how I tried to overcome them is P13 (‘Schamachie’).
In essence, all this supports both Saussure’s and Plato’s arguments. The former believed that writing is a signifier of a signifier – speech – of a signified. This concept became so plainly obvious to me when I thought about how a place (the signified) is first given a name by the locals in their tongue (say Farsi), and subsequently, different European men try to assign their phonetic alphabets (all Latin, but all differently constituted) to that same ‘first local signifier’, resulting in different spellings of the same place. Not to mention, the first local signifier usually signified both the place and a meaning like ‘Iron Gate’ (P26) which is lost in the Latinized form.
Furthermore, writing, as Saussure points out, is inconsistent throughout time and (is supposed to, according to him) follow according to the language users’ usage. P42-P44 give one example of this using the really simple name – com, or kom, or qom, all spoken the same way essentially, but not spelled the same through different languages and through time. I cheekily try to hint at these changes through my inconsistently spelled titles; in this manner I hope to accustom the reader to ‘reading out loud’ the slides/names and being comfortable to the fact that they can all be used interchange-ably.
As for Plato, he would surely tell me (translated from Greek) ‘see! If you rely on writing, which is merely a memory device, you’ll end up with confusion. One only has to ask the original speaker, the local man living in Shamakhi or Qom to know what the true name of a place is.’ If you let writing be an intermediary in time and space, the original meaning cannot be clarified by the speaker.
The Institutional Trace in Maps
Borders are artefacts not just of colonialism but ultimately the Westphalian treaties that established the still contemptuous sovereign nation-states system. The fact that all the other author-explorers Ogilby mention disagree on the ‘bounds’ of this place or that (see essentially the whole first StoryMap) demonstrate their arbitrariness to some degree (even if a river, a ‘natural’ obstacle is used, why choose this river and not the next? And why don’t all rivers become borders?). These authors all attempt to ‘mark’ areas when the map itself shows continuous flow from one empire to the next, and from one province to the next. Ogilby himself doesn’t seem to mind being vague – in P3 he merely says ‘the nature of the Soil’ means one place belongs to one province or the other.
These examples spurred even more questions. The first is the idea that maps (and images) are signifiers. Saussure talked about how signifiers are arbitrary and negatively constructed. Prima facie, this isn’t true of maps, especially the contemporary map which, if anything, is a notational language much like math. They are diagrams, they are scaled down versions of reality, with accurately plotted locations, directions and terrains. They are not arbitrary like sound patterns; they can’t be replaced. These older maps however, blows many holes into that idealized theory of a map. One considers how they neither properly signify reality (P4) and can only be understood in context. What I mean is that the etchings on a map don’t have inherent meaning without other signifiers like the markings that tell me this a map of a certain place. Take the map out of the book, and either take away the words or give it to someone who has never seen maps nor writing before and it looks to him or her like the creases on their bedsheet. Or just think about how ancient Polynesian tidal maps look like (graphs).
The second, and more important question for this section is the relationship between border-imposition and Derrida’s institutional trace. Already I’ve hinted at this. For example, at G31, we see the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea) and Palus Maeotos (Maetis Marshes). What if the word Palus Maeotos wasn’t there? Then we’d think that portion that it currently signifies is also part of Pontus Euxinus. If ‘Europe’ wasn’t placed a map, wouldn’t someone ‘naturally’ think the whole ‘continent’ was ‘Asia’ if the name was placed on it on a map? Derrida believed that all sciences, all thought systems came from the arche-trace, that the idea of demarcation is writing. And that we all think by differentiating. In a way, and it’s a stretch, the idea of mapping, of deciding boundaries where the locals have never perceived it before is an extension of that institutional trace. Another example of what I mean is P32 – perhaps previously, nobody thought of a specific area where Media stops being Media and starts being Arache, because the lived experience was crossing over a normal looking plain. I could go on, but I think I got the gist of it.
Seas, Signs, Symbols?
My last philosophical section are my thoughts on a map in a peculiar time of being both literal and symbolic. What I mean is that maps were becoming more accurate, more literal approximations of real
space. Yet it retained many symbolic elements. One of the more misleading things for example is that on the map, all cities and towns are all the same. Some like ‘Schamachie’ or ‘Isfahan’ are touted as ‘metropolis’ but on the map, the same odd building-shaped symbol is used. Another misleading element of the map is how evenly spaced cities seem to be -they’re probably in the wrong place or worse, cities/towns/population centers were chosen merely because they fit nicely on the map. A reader during Ogilby’s time might mistake certain cities, being commensurate in symbol and font, as important as the metropolises I mentioned. How do we know people did not misread a map that looks suspiciously accurate and detailed? Perhaps in a general sense, a Wittgenstein approach does the trick. Maybe people just understood the map in its half-vague position. Its approximative nature was understood and what it approximated was not misunderstood. And all that misunderstandings with inconsistent spelling? Well, I understood in the end after some (i.e lots of google searches for etymology, history, geography, guessing) clarification, didn’t I?
The Measure of All Things
I hope I’ve managed to articulate some of the conundrums and insights I’ve encountered while doing this final assignment. Before this class, I did not see how language philosophy was applicable or
generalizable. It’s clear to me now however, how it plays a part in our life, our culture and our assumptions. I think Derrida was correct however in believing it was impossible to escape thinking in the system we’re thinking of escaping – we can only poke and prod, muse and make do with what we have.